By Nikita Srivastava
Former football player and Hollywood star, OJ Simpson will have a parole hearing on Thursday, July 20th, 2017. In December 2008, Simpson was convicted of robbery with a deadly weapon. He was sentenced to 33 years in prison with the possibility of parole in 6 years. This, of course, was not Simpson’s first encounter with the law. In 1994, a jury acquitted Simpson of the murders of Nicole Brown-Simpson and Ronald Goldman. His high profile case sparked a division on race relations in this nation.
Simpson’s parole hearing will occur when race remains a highly contested and hotly debated topic in this nation. As a result, it’s fitting to examine Joe’s Feagin concept of the white racial frame (WRF) helps us understand why Simpson and his legal issues embody issues of race. And, to watch the Oscar-winning documentary, OJ: Made in America, which brings these complicated issues to life.
Feagin’s “White Racial Frame”
Feagin argues that white elites created stereotypic notions of Blacks as far back as the late 1600s and early 1700s. The images these Europeans brought to what became the US frequently likened Blacks to animals, characterizing them as:
- ungrateful and rebellious, among others.
As Feagin explains, such images helped establish “the white racial frame [which identified]. . . the prototypical ‘superior’ racial group to be white American and the prototypical ‘inferior’ racial group to be black American.” WRF enforces white supremacy, not only in the minds of whites, but all races.
According to Feagin, WRF has evolved over the years. Currently, we live in a contemporary frame enforced by backstage actors. These backstage actors work “behind the scenes” to keep the imagery of people of color. Feagin says:
whites often speak and act differently in the all-white backstage and the often more diverse frontstage. There is an interesting rationalizing phenomenon: If whites do not articulate racist ideas in public, if they keep them to themselves or just express them in the backstage, then they or their white friends and relatives frequently do not see them as seriously ‘racist.’ Articulating blatant elements of the racist frame in private settings seems to be at least acceptable, probably because in their view no one is ‘really hurt’ by that tactic.
Thus, Feagin suggests, by distinguishing between public and private arenas, whites reinforce the WRF by assuming that no harm is done by what happens “backstage.” As long as they project the ideal of colorblindness in public, such actions are not racist; however, by ignoring biased words and deeds to go unchallenged they actually create more harm by reinforcing the notion of white supremacy.
WRF Onscreen: OJ: Made in America
Ezra Edelman’s OJ: Made in America illustrates WRF’s role in OJ’s rise to fame and his acquittal in what many called the “trial of the century.”
OJ used his athletic prowess to escape not only poverty, but also his father’s homosexuality, and ultimately, his own blackness. In the film, one of OJ’s friends recounts a story from his early days of notoriety. OJ was in a restaurant with his colleagues and friends when a white woman entered. She addressed the other African Americans with the N-word, but addressed OJ by his name. The reason, according to OJ, was that she did not see his color. This is an example of OJ entering into the white space. Because of his fame, OJ no longer was Black; rather, he was OJ Simpson, his own race-less creation.
While OJ was cementing his place in the white community, other African American athletes were leading the resistance against racial discrimination. Many African Americans were refusing to participate in national sporting events until true justice was given to the Black community. However, OJ distanced himself from this fight by criticizing those movements. OJ believed he transcended race.
However, this strategy changed when he was charged with murder. Simpson’s defense attorneys highlighted OJ’s blackness against the backdrop of the LAPD’s history of discriminating against African Americans. The most charged example came from the defense’s questioning of Detective Mark Fuhrman, who used the N-word and criminal synonymously. Audiotapes of his interview with a potential screenwriter showcased Fuhrman’s constant use of the N-word. For African Americans, Fuhrman’s conduct only reinforced the notion that the LAPD had wrongly targeted Simpson because of his race. In contrast, whites did not see how Fuhrman’s racism affected his investigation of Nicole and Ron’s death. As Feagin’s WRF suggests, whites likely saw Fuhrman’s conduct as innocuous “backstage” behavior.
Edelman’s documentary demonstrates the centrality of race to Simpson’s rise and fall. When the former athlete and icon appears before the parole board this week, we will see what role will race play in this chapter of his life.
Nikita Srivastava is a rising 2L. She is currently a fellow for the Ohio Innocence Project and Vice President of Criminal Law Society. Also, she is Secretary of UC Law Women.